Archive for August, 1997

Day 24 – The Elusive Shaman

The shaman elludes us. Sadly she was busy at a funeral. Luckily we were introduced to Uzbekistan’s finest folk singer, Rakhimahon. More later.When we arrive at Rakhimahon’s spacy and elaborate house, food and tea is already on the table. We are immediately shown a video of her many performances on TV and video. This is surprisingly well made for a ‘State film’. Rakhimahon Mazokhidova sings and plays doira. She is the most celebrated folk singer in the country and she could perform at weddings every day if she had the time. She is also the teacher of the two musicians we met yesterday.

As we begin to settle, Rakhimahon is called to perform at a nearby wedding. We are suddenly at another table loaded with food and drink, surrounded by a large crowd of women. Apparently they have gathered (in the groom’s house) to witness the bride’s unveiling. Here the newly married woman opens her veil after a chilla – the bride and groom are locked in a room for three days, are not allowed to receive any visitors and are treated like Royalty. The air is filled with expectancy when a door opens and the bride enters the scene. Rakhimahon is slowly beating her doira and begins to chant a wedding song.

Two girls are leading the bride to the female crowd, they dance in wave-like motion as they slowly move forward. The bride lifts her white-golden veil and disappears into another room. Rakhimahon now plays a faster rhythm. In front of her several women perform a wild dance twisting their feet and arms in animal-like motion. At 68, Rakhimahon still has a lot of energy and bewitches the listener with her charm. The ceremony finishes with Rakhimahon chanting a short prayer.

While we have chai with the host, Kathrin disappears to join the women’s gathering inside the house. Being male I could not enter so Kathrin relates her experience; I find myself sitting cross-legged surrounded by a circle of women in traditional dress. They all wore head scarves in a diverse range of colours. Richly decorated tables overflowed with plov, exotic fruit, strange sweets and drinks. They looked at me with great curiosity and a wonderful openness – it didn’t take long to connect. I am invited to join them for food and prayers. Magical sounds fill the air. The voice belongs to a female Koran reader who is chanting a sura, now the ‘party’ can begin.

Suddenly it’s time for us to leave. We have to get back to Rakhimahon’s house where we are expected by her friends and entourage.

After eating yet another meal back at Rakhimahon’s house we were invited into another part of the house, and told to bring our cameras. Rakhimahon wanted to show us something. Inside a small room were several women wearing white headscarfs. They started to intone a sura from the Koran as soon as we were seated. The recitation is punctuated at intervals by the receiving of blessings (or baraka) from God. This gesture, a cupping of the hands which are then passed over the face soon becomes second nature here in Central Asia. It is performed at various times during the day particularly at meal times. On this occasion the recitation grew in intensity until several of the women began to sway and move their hands rhythmically. This turned into chanting of syllables such as “hai” and “hu” and I realised I was witnessing a Zikr. Zikr is an Arabic word meaning remembrance and there are two main kinds; loud and silent. It consists of the repetition of words or syllables and is used by the various Sufi orders to establish a connection with God.

The chanting was becoming more rhythmic and the women stood up and began to move more vigorously. I sensed that none of the Nomad team were expecting this and this is quite disturbing when it happens so suddenly. Rakhimahon, our host, was becoming physically affected by the experience and she began to cry. It was one of those moments when you feel you ought not to be there let alone with two video and three still cameras. We had most definitely been invited to record this. Before we knew it the atmosphere changed abruptly, the tempo relaxed, smiles flashed, drums were brought in and all tension vanished. There was dancing and celebration. Kathy’s dancing being the cause of much mirth, her hip gyrations were possibly out of context – later though we noticed it had caught on with the younger women. Each of us was presented with a silk scarf which was tied around our waist. We sat down and drank chai. Still shell shocked from our experience I could tell from the uncomprehending looks passing across the room that events had once more taken an unexpected turn. We had witnessed a ceremony normally performed at a funeral.

These women are hereditary singers who are trained to learn the Koran from a very young age. I suspect that they undergo other kinds of spiritual training as well, but this is difficult to substantiate. We were told that this is first time this had been shown to anyone and certainly the first time it had been recorded. Exactly why it was shown to us remains a mystery.

If you ever come to Uzbekistan you need a hat. Small square and black, decorated with a motif that will mark you out – there’s a Fergana motif and a Tashkent motif, a Samarkand motif and a Baysun motif – people know you by your hat – there’s probably one for Peckham. The hats are mostly worn by the older men. These ‘white beards’ (a translation from the Uzbek words) are the custodians of wisdom and sit for hours sipping chai (green tea) in chaikhanas – mostly humble areas of shade beneath a clump of trees. Today I sit in a very grand chaikana, decorated with carved pillars and a multicoloured ceiling. A ‘Ghengis Khan’ lookalike sits in the corner discussing ancient battles his boots carry the mud of the Mongolian steppes.

In the nearby market a woman sits chewing Kokand rock – not the seaside candy variety but serious bits of geology – she tells me it’s good for the blood and circulation – she sells it by the kilo.

With my hat I make many friends, people shake hands in the street I am a local, I wear the Kokand hat.

I came across a stall selling wooden toys. I approached and was greeted ‘asalam aleikum’, peace upon you. Behind the stall the young stall holder had an Afghan Rubab lying on a bed. I pointed to it and he seemed surprised that I recognised it. Suddenly I was in his ‘shop’ drinking chai, being treated like a VIP. Olim played the rubab, luckily I had my penny whistle to return the favour. This seemed too much for him and he immediately started looking through his stock of decorative knives to find the best one to give me. He examined each blade for straightness and sharpness and spent several minutes find the best sheath to fit it. It was then presented to me as a gift. he absolutely refused any payment. The only thing I had to give him in return were my sunglasses, cheap ones, but he seemed pleased. We exchanged addresses and felt like lifelong friends.

24mus01.gifThis tradition of hospitality to strangers is extraordinary – Kathrin was showered with gifts of spices just for being in the market. People want to give you everything. This is an extraordinary feeling for a Londoner. In the chaikhana today they didn’t want to take payment for our tea. It’s no good explaining that we can afford to pay 20 pence for seven people to drink tea and eat bread. Admittedly this is Kokand and tourism is not big here. In some ways I hope it stays that way. In Samarkand and Bukhara where tourism is more developed the people are friendlier than most but they have learnt to handle tourists. If one measures civilisation by warmth of character, grace and humour, then we’ve got a lot to learn from the folks in Uzbekistan.



Tomorrow we go to a new land, Kyrgyzstan. On the way we plan to finally meet an Otin-Oy, a female Sufi singer. Join me

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Day 23 – Everyone’s free in Uzbekistan to live however they want

“Everyone’s free in Uzbekistan to live however they want” Matluba, Kokand

23muse.gifIn pre-Soviet times Kokand was a major capital. It is now a small industrial town in the Fergana Valley. The main industry is still textiles, though over 50 percent of the population depend for their living on casual labour or working the local market. It is a familiar mix of Soviet apartment blocks, older Uzbek architecture and the grandiose statues and fountains celebrating the first Bolshevik leaders. The atmosphere is of calm tolerance with traditional Muslim lifestyles coexisting alongside modern aspirations and styles of dress.

As we drive through Muqimi park, Kokand’s recreation space I witness a disconcerting array of sights. An Uzbekistan Airways jet languishes in the trees, a steam engine resides on a disused circular railway and next to the swings, a palace, the ‘Palace of the Last King’. This structure sits uneasily with its eccentric neighbours. A ramp leads up to one of several decorative courtyards, wooden pillars support primary coloured patterned ceilings.

23jsilk.gifCompleted in 1873 and destroyed soon after by invading tzarist troops, the Palace was converted into a Museum in 1925. The remaining rooms and courtyards now host local history curios. Two original wooden gates from the walls that previously surrounded the city alongside musical instruments imprisoned behind glass. The display included a kobuz (see day 4) possibly evidence of Kokand’s prominent position on the old ‘Silk Road’.

One area that seemed to excite the team was a room full of patterned paintings. These works by Saidakhmad Makhmudov were bright, eye-catching and seemed to echo many of the decoration we had seen before – the walls of the Registan in Samarkand, the ceiling in our Jewish Guest House in Bukhara even the walls of the Museum of Applied Arts in Tashkent. These were fabulous designs and Gary took some stills which can be viewed on a separate page.

23bigw.gifLocal TV director Burkhon Shermatov arranged a meeting for us with Kursanoi Kodirova and Muborakhon Akramova. In a courtyard in the Palace they performed some Uzbek folk songs. Singing and playing doira, their songs mostly concern courtship and marriage. The traditional Uzbek wedding consists of three parts: Erkak Ash, a morning ceremony for men during which male musicians play, Khotin Ash an afternoon ceremony for women and Toy, an evening celebration for everyone. Kursanoi and Muborakhon usually perform in the afternoon and evening. One of the songs they sang for us was a standard of the repertoire called Yor Yor. It is sung as the tearful bride leaves her parents’ house for her new home. Legend has it that the prophet Muhammad once saw women taking a bride to be married and asked them where they were going. They said they were going to a wedding.

23twow.gifThe prophet then declared that everyone should be notified of weddings using a special song. Fatima, Muhammad’s wife, is supposed to have handed down this song which is still sung, over one thousand years later.Besides singing at weddings, Kursanoi and Muborakhon also perform in concert halls and at state events. They were recently awarded third prize at an international festival in Turkey. Their singing and dancing is direct and unfussy with an immediacy and humour that seems appropriate for weddings. Their manner is charming and engaging and it is easy to see, even out of context, why they are the most famous singers (or Yallachi) in the Kokand region.

Whatever may be the popular perception of women’s roles within Islam, it is clear that in this culture women have their own views and modes of expression.

I had the opportunity to talk to Matluba (our present translator) about the position of women in Uzbek society and in particular about the work of the Business Women’s Association of Kokand (BWAK). Matluba presented a very positive view of the way things are progressing. The BWAK is a non governmental organisation which gives advice and training to women wanting to work in both private and governmental sectors. Some of its stated aims are:
– to form an ideology of female business
– to support entrepreneurial initiatives
– to protect the rights of business women
– to improve professional skills.

23int.gifAccording to Matluba more and more women are coming to them for help and she sees the future of Uzbekistan in terms of an open and democratic system. Matluba describes herself as a Muslim, who ‘trusts in God’ and who is trying in her busy life to learn the namaz or prayers. At the same time she sees no reason why she shouldn’t wear modern clothes and make-up. It was extremely refreshing to hear so much optimism from a young person so soon after Independence.

I asked Matluba what she thought of an earlier description of the Fergana valley as being ‘a hotbed of Islamic Militancy’. This seemed totally at odds with her perception of the region. She stressed the extent to which people are increasingly free to live as they wish. Women may follow a traditional way of life or can dress in a modern way and have careers – as long as their families allow them to !

Matluba places a lot of faith in their President, Islam Karimov to take the country further forward into a tolerant and democratic future.

Tomorrow, Ochil Khan – shaman or female Sufi, join us and find out

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Day 22 – Angels of Fire, Tashkent to Kokand

22rdwrks.gifBack on the Silk road. I travel across a mountain pass into the Fergana Valley. This area has been producing silk since the fourth century. It remains a cottage industry despite producing 30 000 metric tonnes per annum. Ironically this is also the most densely populated area in Central Asia and heavily industrialized. From the window of the vehicle I see Dickensian mills churning out black smoke. Cooling towers and open cast mining add to the industrial skyline. Each small town we pass through has its heroic Soviet monuments – arms reaching for the sky, sword wielding soldiers, ‘angels of fire.’
22dombra.gifEach town also has its police checkpoint where the men in red hats peer at us in disbelief and say ‘niet’ quite a lot. Along the road motorists picnic in the petrol queues, this being a rare commodity. As in the Welsh valleys the rather bleak foreground is made worse by the majestic beauty of the surrounding mountains. Roadwork’s delay us for several hours and I eventually arrive in Kokand after dark..

Tourism has not happened yet in Kokand and we find ourselves attracting more curious looks than anywhere we have been so far. We arrived at our accommodation (Soviet style apartment block) somewhat shattered and suffering from the dramatic increase in humidity.

22mat.gifThe hospitality is as warm as anywhere but today it seems more difficult to be good company as we are all so tired. Gary has had a 24 hour flu bug, perhaps three weeks of 16 hour days has taken it’s toll. My new guide is Matluba a member of the Business Women Association of Kokand (BWAK), we will be their guests tomorrow night.

Join us over the next three days when we will be meeting Otin-Oy women – female Sufi singers and a Kokand TV Director will be introducing us to some leading musicians in the area.

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Day 21 – the person who arrives is not the one who left

Yesterday I found myself reflecting on some words from day 0

‘the person who arrives is not the one who left’.

This trip has been very intense for me. Meeting so many people, visiting so many places in such a short span. Some ‘moments’ have had a profound effect on me. Day 4, as I encountered the intense Shamanistic music of Raushan and her kobuz. Day 7, hearing Munadjat moved me to tears. Day 11, the quiet reflection of Hoja Ismail al Bukhari?s Tomb. Day 12, the intimacy and humour of a family lunch with ‘the last of his kind’, Ari Babakhanov. Day 13, at last the satellite works and I share my discoveries and invite your questions. Day 16, I meet the wild man of Baysun, Shoberdy Bakshy who dares to dance to a different drum. Yesterday the Sufi Shayk Kushkarov astounded me with his strength of spirit, generosity and wit. The internet site though is the tip of an iceberg.

21ensem.gifAfter tracking the Baysun Ensemble several hundred kilometres across Uzbekistan, we finally caught up with them in Tashkent. They assembled in Friendship Square at 3.00 in the afternoon heat. Despite the conditions we managed to catch a brief example of their unique brand of folk music. The Ensemble is large, 45 people including musicians and dancers. We only saw 30 of them today, but I still had the impression of a village collectively telling a story. Baysun itself is renowned for its music [see Day 16] and the

21jensem.gifEnsemble have a considerable reputation in Uzbekistan. Established for ten years they have travelled widely, including UK, Turkey, Bulgaria and USA. Their music might be described as folk revival, aiming for a reconstruction of traditional music about everyday life. It is a long way from the Russian inspired ‘folkloric’ groups, and retains something of the simplicity and directness of authentic folk music. Stories and poems are sung and semi-staged. The repertoire is adapted for the concert hall and is very well rehearsed. Its naturalness conceals years of painstaking reconstruction, mostly from oral sources. They now adapt traditional melodies to modern texts.

21duet.gifI sat down with their manager, Abdunabi Ravshanov and their musical director and flute player, Habib Umarov. After some discussion about the Group’s history and current activities, I asked about the similarities between their music and the music of the Balkans, particularly Bulgaria. This similarity had struck me particularly strongly this afternoon. Habib said that Uzbeks and Bulgars had mixed with Turkic people. I took out my flute and played a Turkish melody. Habib’s face flashed a smile of recognition. Within seconds he was playing along and I was trying to imitate some of his ornamentation and variations. It seems this tune is from Istanbul. We each knew slightly different versions but it was undoubtedly the same melody. It was a strange but hard-warming feeling to be sitting in a Tashkent hotel with a Baysun flute player playing a melody from Istanbul.

21habib.gifIt crossed my mind that because musicians seem to pick up tunes wherever they hear them, the music itself becomes nomadic – it travels. This has always been the case. Habib played ‘What do we do with the drunken sailor?’ to which he knew a strange variation on the words presumably picked up on a tour of the UK. On day 2 Abylai played us an Italian tune, on day 18 the chang player in Samarkand entertained us with Mozart. With my Russian limited to one or two words this is by far the best way to get acquainted.

The journey continues, we turn another corner. The Shaman eludes us, and we still only glimpse real yurts on distant hill sides. 19 more days, tomorrow the Ferghana valley and then onward to Krygyzstan.

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Day 20 – If I ask for paradise, kill me!

“If I ask for paradise, kill me!” A proverb from the Yasavi Sufi Order

In response to an email from one of the many thousands following us, we were intending to visit Shaykh Kushkarov, a Sufi master of the Yasavi Order. Such opportunities do not occur every day. As we have said before this kind of direct interactivity is what ‘The Musical Nomad’ is all about – so keep requests and questions coming.

This was going to be another hot, relatively uneventful journey from Samarkand to Tashkent. This the most used roads in Uzbekistan complete with occasional ramps and wandering cattle. The journey took us over a small mountain range sometimes a gorge at other times just a rocky outcrop in the brush landscape.

The exterior of Shaykh Kushkarov’s healing centre is quite plain. Two women dressed in colourful robes greeted us. They had a nun like manner, quiet yet direct and efficient. We sat waiting for Shaykh Kushkarov to arrive and we joked about Jan being left here for the remainder of the journey – the Musical Nomad becomes a resident of this particular Sufi order? Shaykh Kushkarov arrived without ceremony. A tall man with a long black straggly beard hanging down from an oriental face strolled through the wooden doorway. He greeted us with a firm handshake and a smile, the back teeth adorned with gold caps. It felt completely natural to meet him and there seemed to be none of the tension often associated with meeting a ‘stranger’.

He was happy to talk about his organisation and the Yasavi Order – in English or in any of the five or more languages that he speaks. The Order is one of the most widespread in Uzbekistan, along with the Naqshbandiyya. The centre has been operative since 1992 and has five ‘branches’ which are all controlled from their central headquarters. He has about 500 students or ‘murids’ all over the world.

In the course of a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation we were given a tour of the centre. He avoided ‘religious’ dogma, had an intrinsic integrity and pitched his responses at a level we all could grasp.

The attached clinic which specialises in herbal medicine and various kinds of massage. We were told how, at certain times of year, members of the order travel to the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan to collect herbs. This is a difficult task, not only because of the Civil War in Tajikistan but because the herbs only grow above 3700 meters. Several months are spent in the mountains. The physical and spiritual practices are said to be more effective because of the altitude – one month’s work at sea level being achieved in two days. The team also collect a certain kind of root from which they make a special drink. This drink takes five years to prepare and we can all vouch for its extraordinary properties. Shaykh Kushkarov told us that these Sufi medical practices have been used to curing some chronic diseases, including cancer. He stressed that this was not possible in every case but one of his murids whom we met claimed to have been cured of leukemia.

The secret or non public activities of the order consist of the spiritual training of the murids. This is performed through meditation, music and various forms of movement and martial arts. All the exercises are performed under very precise conditions. Shaykh Kushkarov points out that although much had been written about Sufism, important elements of the training were never committed to paper, always being passed on by word of mouth from master to pupil. The centre consists of three areas or ‘corridors’. The first is the reception area and contains the massage and clinical treatment rooms. The second is the court yard and adjoining rooms where exercises are performed. The third area was strictly guarded and no one except the most advanced students were allowed access.

The second area consisted of a martial arts space, a meditation building he told us, a tomb-like structure for ‘focusing’ energy, and a stone on which various movements and meditations are practised. He told us this stone had been used in his family for eleven generations. The meditation hall is an extraordinary building. Built to very precise proportions, it combines the use of colour and certain metals to optimise the conditions for meditation. Nine people can meditate at one time. Three metres underneath the visible structure is another complex of cells and rooms in which people sit in isolation from one to forty days. This they do without any food or water and special air vents have been constructed to allow enough oxygen to penetrate. Shaykh Kushkarov has three times remained underground for forty days. We found it difficult to believe that anyone could survive such an ordeal. He explained how the body can draw upon its own resources of energy, as well as drawing energy from the earth and the cosmos.

Being shown around such a place is no ordinary experience. It has the effect of shifting your perception. We have decided to include personal reports from each member of the team as we were all uniquely affected by these experiences.

GARY’S PERSPECTIVE
Being a bit of an ‘expedition man’ I felt an immediate connection with Shaykh Kushkarov’s three month trips above four thousand meters in the Pamir mountains. Living off the land and searching for rare, medicinal herbs, this was a man who had a mind and body in perfect harmony. He uses it to keep himself alive at high altitude as well as nine meters below the earth, meditating for forty days without nourishment. Regardless of any belief system, he is a ‘very well tuned’ individual. I sensed the team all felt he was responding to them on an individual level. He has an ability to connect with many people simultaneously, not through words but simply by his presence. I also sensed he could pick up many things beyond the superficial such as body language, or tone of voice and was actually able to ‘read’ you. This became evident in a session we had in his ‘medicine’ room. My colleagues had all received readings about their physical health. A short probing of the wrist area, a look at the tongue, some rolling of the eyes and he could diagnose problems in a very detailed way. He then prescribed some herbs for all of them.
When my turn came I was thinking how ineffective medication is, being a firm believer in the minds ability to control the body. As he gently prodded my arm I looked him in the eye, he seemed to respond. He asked me if I had any problems, I said none. He responded “you have a very pure energy, you are well”. He seemed to be telling the truth. I felt he knew that ‘substances’ to many people are placebo, they can carry some ‘energy’ to specific parts of the body but they are not totally necessary and act as a catalyst for the mind to take the healing process further. Later we sat and ate talking further about music therapy.
I showed him our Internet project which made his eyes light up. Suddenly he said “who wants a drink?”vodka, we thought? One of his ‘students’ suddenly produced a clear bottle containing a red liquid. Inside floated a root “from under one meter of rock in the Pamirs.” It looked decidedly unappetising. “This drink contains energy, it will go straight to the bodies ‘centers’ and provide much healing.” Of course that could also be said of a cold pint of Guinness! He poured the red liquid into small chai cups. It smelt of strawberry and mushrooms. “Drink it in one go”, he said and watched gleefully as we each ‘knocked’ it back. He expected a major response. I drank, the musky taste faded then totally unexpectedly I felt as if I was gaining altitude. Not a ‘high’ feeling, more like standing on top of a mountain, my senses were heightened and unbelievably my ears popped as they do when descending in an aircraft. This lasted only four or five seconds but it was a definite physical and mental reaction. Whether or not it had any connection to my ‘energy’ centres I can’t say, but it happened.

My reaction to the drink seemed superficial compared to the feeling I had after saying my good-byes to Shaykh Kushkarov. The feeling of a light being switched on in the centre of my body. A very bright incandescent glow emanating from within. As I entered Tashkent, the noise and pollution rose but the light remained. Something had happened, a warmth from one human to another. Not magic or indoctrination – this was real. Something may have begun.

KATHRIN’S PERSPECTIVE
When I first saw Gulbahor, one of Shaykh Kushkarov’s murides (students), I was immediately struck by her serene beauty and peaceful eyes. We connected in a very quiet yet intense way. When I mentioned that I had terrible stomach pains, she suggested that I have a diagnosis by Shaykh Kushkarov. He discovered various imbalances in my body one of them being my low internal haemoglobin level of -81, which can’t be detected by conventional methods, they would only read the external level of +112. He also noted that fifty percent of my spines energy is ‘blocked.’ I asked him if he could rebalance this. Shaykh Kushkarov then prescribed three herbs. He also recommended a Sufi massage – three sessions would last a lifetime!

Gulbahor asked me to lie down in the massage room. I expected a deep tissue or shiatsu type massage. What followed can only be described as ‘wild ritual.’ She asked me to lie down on my stomach and began to meditate. Gulbahor then picked up a bronze pen-like implement. It had sharp and flat tips. Starting with my feet, she worked her way up my body, scraping, pinning, stroking, pulling and slapping various parts. This was mostly a painful experience, especially when the point connected with various energy points on my back. My arms and legs were pulled beyond their limit. This reminded me of a Shaman’s ritual, beating rapid and regular rhythms on their drums. Again, Gulbahor slapped my body with enormous energy. I thought she was pulling me apart. Suddenly she stopped and stroked me tenderly. She was again her quiet self. Was I dreaming? When I awoke I felt extremely peaceful and happy. Something special had happened. Shaykh Kushkarov checked me again and smiled – “your spine blockage is down to ten percent”.

PAUL’S PERSPECTIVE
For me mystical hocus pocus and men with long beards seem a long way from the stark reality of my home town of Liverpool. However following an industrial injury I suffer a lot with my back. Suddenly in the middle of our conversation Shaykh Kushkarov, I had to interrupt with a question.
“Did you say the Shaykhs give off energy?”
“Yes Indeed” replied the Shaykh.
“Well I just experienced the strangest thing, in therapy for my back injury I undertook a course of cranial osteopathy – this creates a sensation of electricity pulsing in the spine. I have just experienced the same thing in my neck and shoulders just sitting here next to you. All the aches and fatigue from my recent illness have suddenly dissipated”.
“It’s quite normal,” assured the Shaykh.
He later prescribed some herbs from 3700 metres up in the mountains. He refused payment for either his diagnosis, prescribed herbs or the lavish meal he provided.
“There are more things in heaven and earth…………”

JAN’S PERSPECTIVE
Shaykh Kushkarov’s Sufi centre is the kind of place one reads about but can never quite believe in. It is no less than a holistic training centre for physical and spiritual development. It is based upon a traditional wisdom, unbroken for hundreds of years.

As I sit and write, I’m struggling to comprehend it all. The range of the conversation had been enormous. Shaykh Kushkarov publishes books on politics and told us that he is influential in political spheres. Certain facts that he divulged make me inclined to believe him. He demonstrated ‘Koranic mantras’ used in preparation fo

r meditation as well as a Shamanic dance. This connection between the Yasaviyya and Shamanism had already emerged on Day 2 and 4 in Almaty. He described in some detail his martial arts system and allowed me to play a metal flute that was also a disguised weapon.

20kushfl.gifShaykh Kushkarov explained that he had pupils who were Christians and Buddhists and that it was necessary to break down all barriers of faith and nationality in order to have a connection with God. There is no doubt however that his practices are based upon an esoteric interpretation of the Koran. We discussed the connection of maqam music and Sufism. He explained that the music acted as a vehicle for the energy of the Shaykh or spiritual master. It was a catalyst to make them receptive. Herbs he said function in a similar way. Maqam music is a part of a whole training system which is now largely forgotten by most musicians even though it is still performed.

In this medium it is impossible to give more than a taste of the effect that Shaykh Kushkarov had upon us. I suspect we will have much to think about in the coming weeks.

Tomorrow – In search of the STILL elusive Baysun ensemble

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Day 19 – Culture is a Living Thing

19zinda.gifSamarkand contains some of the most stunning sights in Central Asia. Its huge majestic architecture and blue azure domes are a big attraction. It is not a museum city however, it has the feel of a functioning place. People pass through the old centre in the morning on their way to work or to market. You get the impression that people who live here no longer marvel at its beauty, just as Londoners no longer ‘see’ St. Pauls cathedral.
Being a living city there are some sights that are just ‘monuments’ such as the Registan, and some that retain a religious significance beyond their outward beauty. Shah I Zinda, or tomb of the living king is an impressive example of this. It consists of a street of tombs once elaborately decorated with ceramic tiles. Largely unrestored it’s partly ruinous state encourages the imagination to recreate the original splendour.

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The name Shah I Zinda refers to the mausoleum of Qasan Ibn Abbas, a cousin of the prophet Mohammed who is said to have brought Islam to this area. The simple ante room which connects to the actual burial chamber via a small door is a much visited shrine. Tapers are left to burn here and suras (Koranic verses) are read almost continuously. I found myself moved once again by the devotion displayed here, and somewhat mystified by the numbers of video cameras that roamed the sight. Perhaps here more than any other sites we have visited the difference between the tourist and the pilgrim is most obvious.
19muson.gifOnce again everyone is welcome but it did leave a slightly uncomfortable impression.

Just across the road from the quiet serenity of the tombs is the noisy chaos of the main bazaar. In the heat of the day people argue over prices and laugh and joke together. Once again this is the living city of Samarkand, the farmers market where people buy and sell their produce. Its noisy cassette stalls and vivid colour seem even more intense after the cool of the tombs. The whole market sprawls in the shadow of the Bibi Kharnym Mosque. This enormous ruin looms impressively, dwarfing all around it. It was once one of the Islamic World’s largest mosques, but gradually it crumbled under its own weight, finally collapsing in the earthquake of 1897. Around it the city bustles on.

Musaffar was still very excited about our interest in his ‘serious’ music when we returned to his shop. I hoped he had kept his promise and found me a ‘quality’ nai. Sadly he had forgotten.
19jbook.gifThe elusive nai and nai player saga continues. While we were in the shop Musaffar suddenly began playing and singing a maqam. His voice seemed to be slightly out of practice and several notes missed the mark, but I sensed a great deal of integrity in his performance. I asked him to play ‘Munadjat’ (one of the most famous maqam pieces) which he performed wonderfully on his rubab. I asked if we could return later to record some of these pieces. Before I left I purchased a good frame drum case, at least the drums may survive the journey ahead.

Culture is a living thing. The way people dress, the artifacts they make tell their story. As part of Russian imperialism the ‘State Museum of the Cultural History of Uzbekistan’ takes Uzbek culture and sets it in stone. Faded costumes are a poor reminder of a peoples history. As ever the saddest exhibits are the musical instruments – sentenced to a mute death. Tar, gidchak and rubab never to sing. On a positive note the museum does feature a very large Koran, possibly the largest in the world and some intriguing pre-Islamic stones, similar to the ones we saw in Almaty. (see Day 3)

18regbsy.gifBack home in England it’s the sad relics of empire that strive for dignity in the British Museum. Even in the West a museum can be a poor testament. Here surrounded by a population living in a new republic a Soviet conceived museum seems an irrelevance.

The real culture of Uzbekistan is out there on the streets, celebrated in kaleidoscope clothes and the throb of a distant doira. In contrast the Registan across the road has life, a focus for current events animated by dancers and mad trumpets. The heat of the day in Samarkand sat still like a dosing alley cat. It had been well over forty five degrees and it still felt dangerous to be out in the roaring sun. The pollution and general ambient noise added two more disturbing ingredients.

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When we returned to Musaffars shop at four he had his fan on, cooling his small shop to a bearable level. He and his son, Nabishon looked eager to play for us but they had work to do, so we could not take them anywhere quiet. Vehicles and disco music were part of the general chaos outside the window. We needed the fan switched off to enable a reasonable recording. The heat rose. Musaffar picked up his tar, his son grabbed the nearest doira and they burst straight into a ‘number’. They had done this before! The perfect duo, accelerating and decelerating in synchronicity as only father and son could. Nabishon tastefully decorated the instrumental sections with his doira. They both seemed to enjoy playing as much as repairing. Their main income comes from repair work, performing gave life to the instruments. The biggest surprise for me was Musaffar’s voice, now much improved, it rose above the tar and doira. As they played the second piece the workshop became a sauna, sweat rolled off Musaffar’s brow splashing onto his now slightly out of tune tar. We had witnessed a traditional music, passing from father to son without any suggestion of a generation gap.

Tomorrow on the way to Tashkent we hope to meet a Sufi Sheikh (mentioned in Day 18 Mail), and we go in search of the elusive Baysun Ensemble.

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Day 18 – Market Shares in Aladdin’s Cave

18flutce.gifThis morning I awoke at 5.30 am, it was still cool. I stepped out of the guest house to greet the morning light. The Samarkand back street that had been so quiet the night before had been transformed into a lively market. Traders were laying out their wares on rags. Acres of clothes, automobile parts, kitchen utensils, everything you could ever need, strewn along the road. I picked my way through the narrow streets towards the Registan, it’s grandeur tinged by the early morning light. [Registan Panorama] I had a rendezvous with some of the musicians we met last night. They were assembled in cheerful mood and demonstrated a melody in maqam style. The piece ended abruptly, the flute player adorned with Soviet medals, suddenly stopped and fumbled with something near his mouth, his false teeth had fallen out. They were then called to a rehearsal so we had to arrange another meeting with them later in the day.

18chang.gifFurther down from the relative peace of the Registan is the ‘produce market’.

18markt2.gifHundreds of people converge here at sunrise. Rays of sunlight dance across the colourful fruit and spices piled up on long stone slabs. The market is dwarfed below the large dome of the Bibi Kharnym and the scene is full of memorable images. I sat for a while and drank chai on a table in the melon ‘area’ of the market. I chatted to an old mullah called Abdullobobo who told me he comes here everyday at the same time to talk with his friends. He had a deeply soulful face which was both peaceful and wise. He sat contented and seemed to understand what life should be. After the tea break I chatted to a lady called Yura and her son Pahon who were sat by the melons with a fabulous backdrop of the market and mosque.

18shop.gifNext port of call was Musaffar’s workshop. It was small, dark and cave like, as an instrument maker’s shop should be. This was a refreshing change from the tourist-trap shops that now inhabit the old madrassahs in the Registan. Here was a maker and repairer who serves local musicians. Musaffar, age 57 is a small man with subtle oriental features. His family have run the ‘masters’ workshop for five generations and he has been in ‘residence’ for 35 years. He plays tar but says he can ‘have a go’ at any Central Asian instrument. Studying at Samarkand Music Institute he specialised in shash maqam vocal music and classical instrumental styles. I told him about the famous musicians we had met in Tashkent and Bukhara, as we spoke about Ari, Munadjat and Pattahon, he repeated their names and his face began to light up – we had seen some real classical ‘stars’. His son, who proudly sits next to his father, studied doira technique for 5 years at the same institute – he will take over the shop when his father ‘rests’ in a few years time.

18bibi1.gifMusaffar was repairing some high quality instruments and his own instruments seemed better than others in Samarkand. Trying out instruments turned into duets, Musaffar on tar, me on frame drum. He told me that Samarkand’s most popular instrument is the tar, followed closely by the Kashgar rubab and then an instrument he called a Saz (here a long necked lute, with six strings in pairs – used mainly as a solo instrument). In the shop there was also some interesting variants on the basic design of tar and rubab. Still no flutes however – Musaffar promises me faithfully that he will bring some tomorrow. Needless to say I left with a gidjak and another doira. I think I will need an extra flightcase to carry all this stuff.

Musaffar was surprised to find that we were not staying for the Samarkand festival. He is very excited about it – seven days of traditional music from forty Asian & Eastern European countries including many Shash Maqam artists.

18jdoir2.gifEarlier we had arranged to meet the two doira players from the Shir Dor madrassah ensemble at 5pm. The heat of the day, allegedly peaking at 45 degrees was easing off and the streets were now beginning to fill with people ready for early evening revelries. The rehearsals for the Music Festival were still in progress in the Registan and it was only after some argument with an officious policeman that we were allowed into the square. The sun cast long shadows through the West facing lattice gate creating a wonderful abstract on the cobbles of the madrassah square. We met the group of musicians relaxing before their next ‘package’ concert. They seemed delighted to see us again, perhaps because we showed more than a passing interest in their music? The leader of the ensemble, the gidchak and flute player was slightly unhappy when we requested to see only the doira players.

18jdoir1.gifAfter a long period they appeared out of their room in the wall, apparently they had been warming their drums by the fire – after a long day of 40 plus heat they were actually toasting their drums! (This drives the moisture from the skins and makes the drum ‘ring’). I sat with them on a chaikhana table, under a mulberry tree in the corner of the maddrassah. I asked them to demonstrate the range of sounds a doira can make. With the right hand they can produce five different sounds – deep rounded tones or bright slaps. The left hand which supports most of the weight of the instrument can produce three tones – finger flicks onto the edge of the frame drum. I asked them if they would play a simple two drum rhythm gradually adding more and more decoration – the resulting piece ended in a climax of poly-rhythmic virtuosity. A crowd of tourists had gathered and it was time for them to do their ‘show’. I could tell they had enjoyed showing us their skills, a welcome change from the repetitive ‘package’ they do every night.

Samarkand is a surprisingly accessible and diverse city. It has already exceeded many expectations. Tomorrow I will discover more. Here anything seems possible.

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Day 17 – Ten Second Tornadoes on the Road to Samarkand

17mount.gif“The Road to Samarkand” and not a sign of Bing Crosby or Bob Hope (one of Paul’s jokes for the oldies on the web).

We set off early from Baysun and received a ‘right royal’ send off from the mayor and deputy mayor – they carry our luggage and grip our hands in gratitude for spending time with them and ask us to return. As the ‘Nomadmobile” heads off out of the town a morning light glances low over the Zerafshan ridge. The vertical landscape is dotted occasionally with Yurts, small ‘ten second tornadoes’ and herds of goats. We have to swerve precariously close to the edge of steep gorges narrowly avoiding various bovine animals.

17sign.gifOur driver, Bahadir who has just had his fifth grandchild, is fully in control. Gradually the heat rises and the hills disappear as we come out of the mountains. A big right turn at Karsi and we are on a fast, flat, perpetually straight road to Samarkand – the only interest being an occasional near vehicle crash either through potholed roads or badly misjudged overtaking. Eventually we near the outskirts of Samarkand and say good-bye to Sasha, he has to catch a bus to Tashkent. “Farewell comrades”, he says.

This trip has had its highs and lows, from the exhilaration of meeting wonderful musicians to the frustration of having no petrol. Through it all one figure seems almost unruffled by anything. Always patient, calm and considered, Sasha, our translator and advisor is a kind of centre of gravity, a point of stability for us. He has been on the road with us now for ten days so is used to our strange ways. He has acted far beyond the call of duty, and his understanding of Uzbek social graces has been invaluable . He always seems to be considering some “problem” (a word he likes to use) or reading a book (preferably in classical Persian). Suddenly something will amuse him and his bearded face will ignite with infectious laughter.

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Things work at their own pace here and Sasha understands this better than anyone. It’s easy to forget that this mild mannered man is an accomplished scholar, he wears his learning lightly and doesn’t need to impress anyone.

In one conversation with Sasha I caught a glimpse of the difficulty musicians here face trying to communicate with the outside world. Sasha gave the analogy of an Asian musician trying to describe Beethoven using his own musical terms of reference. Inevitably distortions would arise. This situation compares roughly with the efforts of some European scholars who come to Central Asia to research music. Sasha was at pains to point out that there were Europeans who understood this music better than some local scholars.This problem of unconscious Euro-centrism is something which musicians treat with indulgence here. Sasha kindly added that our project had a completely different brief, to introduce this music to a wide audience.

Patience and wisdom are rare qualities, Sasha possesses them in abundance.

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I arrive in Samarkand to find there is no room at the inn (again!). Samarkand only has two ‘bed and breakfasts’ and they’re full. I’m shunted off to a small courtyard with some abandoned bedrooms and parking space for the Nomadmobile. Gary is concerned that we have a clear line of site to the Indian Ocean – whatever that means. (Satellite?) I’m just happy to wash the dust off my feet.

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Samarkand is often described as the ‘Pearl of the East.’ The tall madrassahs supporting deep blue domes and the majesty of scale could produce a thousand descriptive superlatives. The city is, like Bukhara undergoing major refurbishment and soon celebrates its 1250th year. It also hosts a week long “Music of the East” Festival starting 25th August, this is one of the biggest events in the area for many years.

The Registan, one of the most celebrated monuments shows signs of preparation – tomorrow I will see it in the dawn light and get you some photos. When we arrive twenty traditional trumpet players rehearse their fanfare and stage positions for the opening ceremony – it reminds me of a Dad’s Army drill. The whole city has a sense of life and movement. Things are changing, fast. There is transition and excitement in the air, music and dance are commonplace on the street and in the specially designated tourist areas. I will explore this more in the next two days.17regs.gifEverywhere in the world, folk culture is presented as entertainment for “package tourists”. Samarkand is no exception. At 6 pm every evening local musicians and dancers re-enact an Uzbek legend with music, mime, puppetry and fire eating. It’s beautifully done and although stylized maintains a joyful innocence.

17musi.gifThe costumes are probably exaggerated, the music simplified, the legend made larger than life with roaring flame. Yet for all that bemused confused tourists get a taste of a wonderful culture. If they want to know more there are CDs and ‘Musical Nomads’. I was particularly impressed by the doira (frame drum) players with their intricate poly rhythms – I arranged to see them for a detailed session on Usul – the rhythmic patterns of Central Asia. The chang (oriental hammered dulcimer) player is also worth a closer listen.

Join me tomorrow as we explore the city and meet frame drum and other traditional Uzbek folk musicians – I may even get to meet my first Central Asian flautist

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Day 16 – Let us hear your voice

16sat.gifThe journey to Baysun in South Eastern Uzbekistan, today took us over several mountain passes close to the Afghan and Tajik border. The environment is barren and inhospitable with few rivers or lakes to nourish the harsh land. We passed through several suspicious random checkpoints which had no obvious reason for existance – the regional boundaries seem inappropriate in such ‘samey’ terrain. Many of the panoramas call to mind Arizona, mini Grand Canyons appear with extraordinary regularity. As we approached from the West, the sun sets turning the sandy landscape Martian. We round a bend and nestled below a 12,000 ft ridge an apparent oasis comes into view. Baysun is surprisingly large with a population of nearly 23,000; its main sources of income are meat and wheat. It has a large supermarket, a diminutive produce market and a house of culture, complete with 1000 seater cinema.

15pres.gif When we arrived there was some confusion as the famous Baysun ensemble had left town. They had been sent for a two week ‘gig’ in Tashkent and were our only form of contact – initially we were asked to leave.

After the shock died down the town’s officials began to buzz around us. What to do? Some people from another land had descended on their town. There followed a lengthy approval procedure, we were taken to Turakul Hamraev’s office (Baysun’s Mayor) – a yard with a table and phone. We had to explain our mission, do an impromtu Multimedia presentation and smile a lot at the various dignitaries. After an hour or so of ‘checking’ each other out we were suddenly honored guests – the transition into that mode almost lost on a tired ‘Nomad’ team. Many of the local musicians were also in the throng. Another musician we wanted to meet, Shoberdy Bakshy who had now been told to spend time with us tomorrow and to cancel a financially lucrative wedding ceremony.

16stat.gifOnce accepted we received a welcome of such kindness and honesty that we were at first very disconcerted. The deputy major of the Baysun region, Samariddin Mustafakulov had been given the unenvious job of looking after us at 9 pm. He opened a restaurant for us to eat after our long trip, he made available at a moments notice, a Daja (a summer house in the past used by Russian officials) and he even waited at our late night table plying us with vodka. Throughout the coming day he would accompany us everywhere, standing over the lengthy video and audio recordings, following us into the mountains for a location shoot with the Bakshy singer – making sure we were happy and at every moment filling our chai cups with vodka. Ourstandard refusal of we have too much work to do eventually worked.

The Soviet’s pulled out of this area and indeed the whole of Uzbekistan back in 1992. The control reverted back to the indigenous people who retained many of the Soviet ways. Here in Baysun there is the remarkable combination of a warm and friendly people living in the shadow of the past – things have moved on but at a far decelerated pace.

16bak.gifSometimes musicians are more than just players of music. Sometimes concert pianists disappear into a world of their own creation – lost in music. Jazz musicians talk of being ‘high on music’ and anyone lucky enough to play an instrument occasionally feels that sense of the music taking over. When Shoberdy Bakshy sings, gently thrumming on his dombra, clocks pause. His voice is a low chested throb rising to a scream. His dombra dances with the rhythm of something anciently human. Short songs in his repertoire last 20 minutes, the long ones several days. For us he wishes to record a 2-hour epic – our longest tape lasts merely 60 minutes. Shoberdy composes on the spot, taking an old theme and reweaving it into a new opus featuring all members of the “Musical Nomad”.

The biggest frustration of travelling is not being able to share experiences with the ‘folks’ back home. Here we have the immediacy of satellite communication, sharing a moment with the World. My ‘moment’ today was driving through the mountains sitting next to Shoberdy who was singing his song about our arrival in Uzbekistan. Sasha, Bahadir, the deputy mayor, everyone was in the story – each laughted and nodded as their name was mentioned. It suddenly struck me that he was doing exactly what we were doing, telling a story live, responding to the environment. This spontaneity affected me more than anything else.16jback.gifIn interview he spoke of his songs of friendship, love and nature. In the presence of the microphone he declined to speak of Shamanism – he just oozes ‘spirit’ from the ends of his calluosed fingers. Shoberdy Bakshy is a wild man who dances to a different drum and drinks vodka like water. May he live a long and mysterious life.

Tomorrow – Samarkand. We take the ‘Golden Road’ to discover the music of the ‘Pearl of the East’.

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Day 15 – Bukhara to Baysun, into the mountains at last

15shop.gifBefore setting off from Bukhara this morning, we called in at the workshop of an instrument maker, Karomat Mukimov. It was not long before we were surrounded by the master’s young apprentices and were being shown the intricacies of tuning tars. Karomat and Sasha had been at the Tashkent Conservatory together 23 years ago, so there was a mini reunion going on. Amongst the instruments in his shop was a tanbur from the nineteenth century, it had been lovingly restored by this master. It transpired that the tanbur had once belonged to Leviche Babakhanor, grandfather of Ari (a musician we met three days ago). This news came as something of a shock. Why would the family sell such a beautiful instrument? It was heavily inlaid and was quite obviously made for an important player. Sasha told us that Ari had referred to an instrument of Leviche’s which had been sold to a maker. This tanbur was an antique with historical value, having belonged to one of the last Bukharan court musicians. Here it was for sale. Admittedly not cheap, but we would have been free to take it abroad. It crossed our minds to buy it and give it back to Ari – where it belonged. The story went that one of Ari’s brothers had gone to live in Israel and had exchanged this instrument for an new one. It seemed sad to see it here but at least it was now restored and perhaps would end up in the hands of a player.

My thoughts now turned to a doira, a frame drum, that I had seen several days before, but had then seemed absurdly overpriced. Whether it was the effect of half an hour of conversation, or Sasha’s connection with the instrument maker, I’ll never know, but the price suddenly dropped by a third. We struck a deal and I walked away the proud owner of a high quality doira. Now all I have to do is persuade someone to show me a few tricks.

15van.gifThis project involves plenty of travelling around Central Asia. After all I am the ‘Musical Nomad’. Of course the truth of the matter is I am accompanied by a small, specialist team. Our ‘nomad horse’ for the last two weeks is a Volkswagen Caravelle, with enough seats for six people and five large flightcases.In Central Asia a driver is more than simply a driver, he constantly nurses and cleans the car, never leaves it and finds petrol in the most unlikely places. Our Uzbek driver Bahadir is a real character and devout individual. He is a stout man with a face half resembling Mel Brooks and a sleepy manner. We were amused watching Bahadir buying petrol. He would chase lorry drivers, hug and kiss them and spend hours in the back yard of strangers.

16bah.gifOur delicate computer, communications and audio/video equipment are at the mercy of his driving skills and we all too often have to tell him, through Sasha, to ‘slow down!’ This gets lost in the translation as within minutes we are once again careering through potholed hairpin bends. Bahadir also has an uncanny ability to forget things – only basic things such as which town we asked to stop in!. With all his faults though he has some key redeeming features – his devotion to his religion and his mild manner which conceals a strength alien to many in the West.

Yurts and oil wells line the improbable road to Baysun. A semi desert of stunted shrubs strectches to a hazy horizon. The mode of transport switches from dodgy trucks to lively donkeys, laden with unknown produce bound for market.

I15grp.gifn many Islamic countries you wield a camera at your peril. In Tunisia for example, even pointing a camera at a person is considered deeply offensive. I entered the lively market at Karsi full of trepidation. Everywhere the rich fruit colours of high summer beg for Kodachrome. Reds in apples and tomatoes, golden yellow pears, grapes, as black as night. In direct competition for photogenic appeal were the gorgeous Tajic clothes of the Uzbek women. I gestured to my camera with a thumbs up and a smile – smiles were returned. Suddenly I was the most popular guy in town – everybody wanted to be photographed and video’d. It gets better. The fruit sellers started to compete for my attention by paying me in fruit. I left the market laden with bags, totally bemused but thrilled. The generosity of these people had been such a surprising contrast.

15bays.gifIn the cities of the former Soviet Union the legacy of too many conquering Tzars and an autonomous state is a frozen fear still reflected in faces. Here in the country people further from the hub of beaurocracy seem to retain an earlier innocence. As we arrive in Baysun unannounced in the early evening, word spreads fast. Soon a whole greeting committee turn out to welcome us to this small town in the mountains famous for its music.

Tomorrow the ‘Bakshy of Baysun’.

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